Sunday, April 30, 2006

Freedom of Thought

Apparently, I do not believe in freedom of thought. That is what a couple of commenters said in response to my post, "A Right to Your Opinion."

They are right. I do not.

Neither does anybody else.

Okay, actually, there might be a half-dozen people out there who actually do endorse total freedom of thought, but they certainly are not very common.

I am going to offer a more complete proof this time. However, first, I will more clearly state what I am not saying.

Freedom of Expression

First, Austin Cline was right, I think, when he pointed out that some people seemed not to have understood my thesis. Some people seem to have come to the opinion that I was prohibiting freedom from expression.

I think that I have more than an ample paper trail to show that this is not a valid interpretation.

When people rioted against a group of neo-Nazis who marched in Toledo last year, I defended their right to march and even their right to march through neighborhoods where people were particularly sensitive to their message -- and condemned the rioters.

When the issue of the cartoons of Mohammed broke, I wrote several posts on that issue condemning those who would call for the execution of the cartoonists or call for violence against all Danes or all Europeans merely on the grounds that some of them expressed an attitude of bigotry towards Muslims.

When David Irving was sentenced to prison for saying that the Holocaust did not exist, I argued that this, too, was a moral crime -- the imprisonment.

In all of these cases, I argued used the principle that it was not permissible to respond to words with violence. The only legitimate response to words was other words -- words of correction and condemnation.

So, when I say that people do not have a right to certain opinions, I am not talking about throwing people in prison or threatening them with any form of violence for expressing those opinions. I would be against such things for the reasons that I mentioned in those essays.

However, our institutions give us more options for moral condemnation other than calling in the police. A person can still do something wrong (immoral), even when it would not be appropriate to call in the police and have him arrested.

Consider the case of a person who breaks an appointment to meet another person for lunch. He just blows off the promise. It would be silly to have a law making these types of moral transgressions illegal. However, they are still moral transgressions. We are not going to bring the police in on this matter, and we are still going to say that violence is an inappropriate response. Yet, the action is still wrong.

Expressing one of these opinions that one does not have a right to fits in the same category. I would oppose any type of legal prohibition against expressing such an opinion. Yet, moral condemnation is still appropriate. People who peacefully express these opinions they have no right to hold still deserve our moral contempt.

When they express those opinions through other types of action, they deserve worse.

What Do We Punish?

You are a police officer. You show up at an accident. There is a car stopped on the road, a crumpled up bicycle underneath the car, and the corpse of a bicycle rider wrapped around a nearby telephone pole.

Was it accident, or was it murder?

More importantly, what is the difference?

The difference between an accident and murder is found entirely in the answer to one question, "What was the driver thinking?"

If the evidence suggests that the driver was thinking, "I'm going to get you, you bastard!" then we call the act 'murder.' If, instead, the driver was thinking about the rattlesnake that crawled out from under his seat, we say this was an accident.

Whether the driver is punished or let off depends entirely on what the driver was thinking. In other words, if we punish the person, we are punishing him for what he was thinking at the time. If we let him off, it will be because of what we are thinking.

In reality, we do not punish anything but thoughts. Not only is it permissible to praise or punish people because of their thoughts -- thoughts are the only thing we praise or punish.


Here is more proof that praise and punishment is focused entirely on mental states.

Morality, like law, recognizes four categories of culpability (blameworthiness).

Intentional: Person A believes that his action will kill Person B, and Person A either wants Person B dead as an end in itself or as a means to obtaining something else that he wants (e.g., money). For example, a fighter pilot fires a missile into a house where there is an Al Queida leader inside intentionally kills the leader.

Knowing: Person A believes that his action will kill Person B and performs the act anyway. For example, a fighter pilot shoots a missile into a home where an Al Queida operative is sitting down with several families for a holliday feast. The pilot may prefer that the children would not be killed. However, he fires the weapon knowing that he will kill several children.

Reckless: Person A believes that his action would put other people's life at risk. For example, a fighter pilot drops a bomb on a group of people without determining whether the target is friend or foe. He ends up killing a group of Canadian soldiers.

Negligence: Person A should have known that his actions would put other people's lives at risk. For example, a fighter pilot forgets to disarm his weapons before flying back to friendly airspace, and accidentally fires a missile at a building on his own base.

Note that all of these categories are measurements of what the agent believed and desired at the time an act took place, compared to what he should have believed and desired. These categories exist because moral assessments are, in fact, assessments of mental states. Being 'culpable' means having mental states that one is not allowed to have.

Mens Rea

The concept of culpability fits in with the moral and legal concept of mens rea.

Literally, this means 'guilty mind'. It means that the person who accuses another of a moral crime, or a prosecutor who is attempting to prove that the accused is guilty of a legal crime, is asserting that the accused had certain mental states that are a necessary component of culpability.

Person A picks up a suitcase at an airport baggage terminal and walks off with it. Was it a case of mistaken identity? Or was it theft? It is theft if the person who took the baggage believed that the baggage belonged to somebody else and he wanted to deny the owner of the suitcase access to its contents -- claiming those contents for himself.

Again, what are we looking at in order to determine whether an individual should be punished?

We are looking at the agent's mental states. Whether we punish this person or let him go will be determined by what we can reasonably conclude about what he believed and what he desired at the time that the act took place.

All moral evaluations are, at their core, evaluations of mental states -- beliefs and desires (values).

Mental States and Action

Why are we concerned with mental states when making moral judgments?

It is because there is no way to divorce an action from the agent's mental states.

In fact, actions are defined and categorized by the mental states that cause them. If you put an unconscious person in a robot car and send it to New Orleans, then he is not driving to New Orleans. The act of driving to New Orleans means that one has a particular set of beliefs and desires -- a desire to go to New Orleans, and a belief that a certain set of actions will get one there.

A 'belief that P' is a mental state whereby an agent is disposed to act as if the proposition 'P' is true.

A 'desire that P' is a mental state whereby an agent is disposed to act so as to bring about or preserve a state of affairs where 'P' is true.

Beliefs and desires are defined as dispositions to act. Actions are defined by the beliefs and desires that cause the behavior. Actions and mental states are inseparable, such that, it simply becomes nonsense to try to praise or condemn actions without praising or condemning the mental states that define those actions.


I said that people do not have a right to certain opinions. I stand by that.

I do not mean by this that whose who express an opinion merely in words should be met with anything other than words in return. In fact, I would reject that conclusion.

However, in meeting words with words, moral condemnation can and should be a key part of answering words expressing an opinion that people do not have a right to hold. It is quite appropriate to condemn anybody who calls for doing harm to others who has not gone through the effort of earning that opinion.

And if a person expresses his beliefs and desires in something other than words -- in actions that are actually harmful to others, then it is permissible to respond with much more than moral condemnation.

Beliefs and desires are nothing more than dispositions to act. And actions are defined by the beliefs and desires that are expressed through that action. It simply is not possible to condemn an action without condemning a bundle of beliefs and desires. It is no more possible than drawing a circle that is not round.

So, there is no unlimited freedom of thought. If we praise or condemn anything, we are praising or condemning the mental states of agents. It does not really make sense to praise or condemn anything else.


Anonymous said...

Everyone has the right to his own opinion. Nobody has the right to his own facts. If you say "P is true," you are making a statement of fact. Even moral statements are factual in nature: "You ought to be killed" is not an opinion; it is an attempt to express a moral fact. Here the statement is false.

"You are a terrible piano player," on the other hand, is mostly an opinion. It may be very close to fact - say you couldn't even play a C-scale. Of course, I could merely be taking issue with your style, not your technical competence.

"Peas taste bad" is almost completely opinion; but it can be made into a fact (albeit an uninteresting one) by adding "to me" to the end of the sentence. "I believe P is true" is a statement of fact, even if P is completely false. The fact is my belief, not P itself.

So, in closing, everyone does have a right to his own opinion - you just defined it too broadly.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


The last part of your comment is correct. I take the statement, "Peas taste bad (to me)" to be a statement of fact (or fiction).

It is as true as the statement that I am over 6' tall and I live in Colorado. Anybody who denies the proposition, "I (Alonzo) have an aversion to the taste of peas" is making a factual error.

(And, trust me, it is a true statement, and those who assert that this is false are making a mistake of fact.)

If "I am six feet tall" is not an opinion, then there is no reason to classify the proposition, "I have an aversion to the taste of peas" as an opinion. I see no non-arbitrary way to treat these any differently.

Clearly, I hold that people have the 'right', so to speak, to like or dislike the taste of peas -- just as they have the 'right' to be more or less than 6' tall. Yet, I would not classify the right to like or dislike peas as the right to an opinion, any more than I would classify the right to be more or less than 6' tall to be the right to an opinion.

By a 'right to an opinion' I am talking about a right to a particualar belief -- what you call a right to one's own facts.

Whereas you seem to agree that "you ought to be killed" is not something that a person has a right to in the relevant sense.

You seem to want to classify desires as 'opinions', whereas I do not. Desires, like height, weight, pulse, blood pressure, and age, are 'states' that exist (or not) as a matter of fact.

At the same time, I classify beliefs as 'opinions.' As in, "In my opinion, the Iraqi will welcome us as liberators." You do not seem to want to do this.

Yet, once we get our terms straightened out, we do not seem to be in disagreement.